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building, unconsciously or consciously, the political base that would support him in the years ahead. >> after winning a case, returned 50% of a fee that was duly negotiated between he and i. >> after court is out of session, he's sitting around in a tavern with his friends, or in a boardinghouse, and they're talking about the issues of the day. >> so it's sort of an exciting time politically for lincoln, and some of his earliest thoughts on slavery and politics come from his days riding in the circuit and sharing ideas and debating other lawyers on the issues of the day. >> and lincoln understood that putting on a performance was a part of winning the case, just as it was to entertain people in the taverns. >> they were not legally bound to abide by that. now, you have heard all the testimony in this case. and i do not dispute
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the facts in this case. i believe that as reasonable men, and you all are reasonable men, or judge david davis would not have seated you as jurors. >> he had an almost mesmerizing way in the presentation of his case with jurors and used storytelling to make his point. >> narrator: william herndon recalled one of lincoln's best speeches to a jury was in the case of thomas versus wright. rebecca thomas was an elderly woman who was crippled and bent with age. she lived off her husband, john's, pension from his service during the revolutionary war. >> a grave miscarriage of justice against this woman. >> narrator: but erastus wright, a pension agent, claimed that he was entitled to half of her monthly pension. when mrs. thomas engaged lincoln to bring a suit against wright for the return of her money,
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he was outraged by her treatment. lincoln told judge davis, "i'm going to skin wright." >> this woman's husband was at valley forge. he walked barefoot in the snow. >> he talked about valley forge and about the ice and the snow and the soldiers' bleeding feet and them leaving home and leaving their loved ones behind and all the sacrifices they made, and that stirred the jury's patriotism and anger at wright. >> narrator: rebecca thomas won the case. >> lincoln was aware of everything that was going on in court. he had--just had that sense: the sense of movement, the sense of listening, the right time to object, the right argument to make, the right time for humor, the right time to be serious. >> he had a tremendous ability to think through both sides of the case, and he would in fact surprise judges and juries by
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starting some of his arguments by giving a pretty strong case for what his opponent was trying to say. >> he would say, "my opponent has a good argument on point 'a' and has good evidence on point 'b' and sound reasoning on point 'c' and"-- and meanwhile, the client would sweating bullets, thinking, "oh, my goodness, he's giving away the case here." >> but then he would go and pick it apart sentence by sentence or thought by thought and substitute his version of what the case was really about. >> he'd be in all these towns of the circuit practicing law during the day, and at night, then, he would go and give speeches. [cheers and applause] >> relax, folks. relax. >> yay! >> my fellow citizens, my politics are short and sweet,
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like the old woman's dance. no duty is more incumbent upon the federal government than that of providing the people a sound and uniform currency. >> absolutely, absolutely. [cheers and applause] >> and yet the democrat party-- [crowd boos] and yet the democrat party has been--ever since the jackson administration--been waging a war against a national bank. the democrats seem to hate banks as the devil is said to hate holy water. >> yes. >> yes, mr. lincoln. >> he realized that he could combine both of his pursuits on the same circuit, and it enabled him to become very well acquainted and respected throughout the whole band of central illinois, from indiana to missouri and iowa. >> illinois was very racist. there's no other way
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to depict it. it came close to voting to be a slave state. it barred african-americans who were free from coming into the state. so it was a very racist society in which lincoln had to deal. it was the very people he had to appeal to, so many of them, to get elected who held these very strong antiblack views. they didn't want anything to do with blacks, and they didn't want anything to do with slavery either. >> to try to get back in those days and to understand racial relations, it's just hard for us to do that. the best scientists of the day, louis agassiz and others, are telling you it's good science that people from africa are biologically inferior. >> of course, a lot people still argue that lincoln is a racist, and i would not deny that. >> he says, "obviously, blacks aren't my equal in color.
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they may not be, or perhaps are not, intellectually or morally." >> it could be that he believed some of those things about the inferiority of african-americans at that time. >> lincoln doesn't talk about how cruel slavery is. he didn't talk about how slavery has created an un-american, undemocratic social order. he doesn't talk about how slavery has led to the suppression of free speech. instead, he emphasizes one thing over and over and over again in his antislavery speeches: that it is an outrage that somebody goes out and works in the hot sun all day and somebody else derives all the profits, that it's organized, systemized robbery. >> i don't think that you can separate the man from the politician or the personal views from what he's doing as a politician. certainly, lincoln hated slavery, and he hated slavery because it flew in the face of the principles of the declaration of independence, and he was a man who thought very highly of that document.
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>> and if you look at where lincoln was and everyone else was, i think it's not fair to paint him as a racist compared to others. remember, the major politician, the person who was supposedly the next great politician and probably seen as the greatest of his age, was stephen douglas. >> narrator: douglas was an easterner who came to illinois in 1833. just a few years into his law practice, he started to rise in the democratic party. he was elected to the united states senate in 1847. >> where lincoln was sort of a lawyer first and then a politician, douglas was very much the politician, and law was sort of the backdrop. >> narrator: in 1846, lincoln was elected to the u.s. congress, but his opposition to the popular mexican war turned his political base against him. >> his one term in congress was pretty much a failure. he was against the mexican war
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which was, you know, a war where we defeated mexico pretty easily, and there was a lot of public support for that. a lot of whigs did not support the mexican war, and lincoln was one of the more outspoken critics of the war, so that hurt him politically. >> when he compared himself to stephen a. douglas, he said that stephen a. douglas and i both arrived in illinois roughly at the same time, and we both started off as hardscrabble boys ambitious to get ahead, and i am--in the race of success, i am a failure, a flat failure. >> narrator: when his term was up, he returned to springfield disappointed and concentrated on his legal career. >> he was just content to be done with politics and that he would focus, basically, the rest of his life building his law practice and making money that way. >> billy. >> ah, mr. lincoln. >> good news: the firm will stay solvent for a while. >> narrator: lincoln was the only traveling lawyer to stay out on the circuit from
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beginning to end. even on sundays, when most journeyed home to see their families, lincoln did not. >> and this incorporates the changes we talked about. >> yes, it does, huh? >> good. >> narrator: it caused some to wonder. judge davis said mary was to blame. >> mary supposedly, according to all the evidence, had an uncontrollable temper. >> she made life very unpleasant at home, and as a result, lincoln spent as much time away from home as he could. >> we still don't know the whole story of mary todd and abraham lincoln. historians are debating now whether in fact she was bipolar. >> whatever a writer may think about mary, they have to confront the ultimate question of why the marriage lasted. i mean, they had a marriage that many people from the outside, they didn't understand. >> his wife was, in a sense, more ambitious than he was, and she really wanted to be famous and first lady, and so she urged him on.
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now, he had ambition to begin with, but it was strengthened. her influence was like an afterburner on a rocket. he had the rocket fuel to begin with, but the afterburners really helped boost him. >> narrator: by the 1850s, lincoln was a leading attorney in the state of illinois. his clientele included some of the most prominent and influential in the circuit. he handled over 300 cases that were heard by the illinois supreme court. lincoln's state was changing. new railroad lines brought growth and prosperity. it also meant more work for attorneys. one of lincoln's best client's was the illinois central railroad. >> lincoln's called a railroad lawyer because he represented the illinois central railroad. it was the corporate giant of the state of illinois, and so it indicates what a significant lawyer he was. on the other hand, when you look
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at his practice, he handled 70 cases or so for railroads, and he handled 60 against, so he took business as it came. >> narrator: in 1853, mclean county brought a suit against the illinois central railroad over real estate taxes. other counties were also threatening to sue. both sides wanted to hire lincoln. >> and he told the county in that same case, "you know what? i can't take the 'cause you won't pay me as much as the railroad will." >> i mean, the best side of that case is the railroad side of the case, and lincoln's pragmatic; he knows that. >> narrator: lincoln won the case in front of the illinois state supreme court and earned the highest fee of his career, $5,000, but the illinois central did not pay. lincoln in turn took the railroad to court in order to collect his fees. in 1857, he finally received his earnings.
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>> mr. lincoln. it's time for court. >> he was a lawyer in the sense that he wanted the law to work for everybody and to make society a better place. >> i think lincoln was one of those lawyers who regarded his profession as one which allowed him and his colleagues to serve as agents of social peace. >> the ethics of the day were different than today. they shift like sand over the generations, i think all to the better. but when lincoln was riding circuit in metamora, he had this case where he represented melissa goings, who was accused of murdering her abusive husband, and the case was going badly for her, so lincoln asked for a recess, as many lawyers would do. >> narrator: lincoln sat with melissa downstairs in an office. outside, the sheriff kept watch. >> one moment, sir. >> i'm awfully thirsty.
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could i have some water? >> let me study on that. i've heard there's some mighty good water in tennessee. >> narrator: angered by the missing defendant, judge harriott called lincoln to the bench. lincoln told the judge he did not know where his client was. he said when he saw her last, she remarked that she was thirsty, and he told her, "there's mighty fine drinking water in tennessee." >> now, can you imagine a lawyer doing that today? he would have been--or she-- would have been charged with obstruction of justice. this is lincoln's sense of justice: the relationship among people.
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>> narrator: a year later in beardstown, illinois, lincoln tried another murder case which became one of the most famous of his career. the man accused was the son of lincoln's closest friends from new salem. his name was duff armstrong. >> i mean, it tells us about lincoln and friendship, and it tells us about lincoln and how he didn't forget people and how he understand what it was like to be poor. >> yes, sir. >> narrator: lincoln rarely used his personal connections to the client when trying a case, but in the armstrong trial, he told the jury how the defendant's mother, hannah, had cared for him and mended his pants when he was a poor young man. he talked of rocking their baby boy duff in his cradle. >> presenting this very nostalgic view for the jury, so that, in the words of one juror, they lost sight of the defendant in their respect for the defendant's parents.
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>> he mixed in some personal emotion and personal passion. >> and we could write it off as sentimentality, but in fact, he was appealing to the hearts of the jurors. >> narrator: the prosecution's argument was based on the testimony of a witness who claimed to have seen the murder. >> now, mr. allen, let me make sure that i understand your testimony. >> narrator: the witness, charles allen, said he saw armstrong strike the fatal blow that killed metzker by the light of the moon. >> how would you explain that at that time according to the almanac, the moon had set for 15 minutes? >> narrator: lincoln produced a farmer's almanac that claimed the moon was not high enough to shed light on the murder scene. >> the purpose of the almanac in discrediting charles allen was to demonstrate that he couldn't see. >> too often we lose sight of the multitude of different
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strategies that lincoln uses here in our attention on the almanac, which was a part of the trial but was not necessarily the only decisive factor. >> narrator: duff armstrong was acquitted. lincoln refused to accept payment for his services. >> it's 1858. lincoln's rather busy at this time. these are lincoln-douglas debates, the most important time in his life, and abraham lincoln takes away from everything else he's doing to defend duff armstrong on a murder charge. only, i think, because of lincoln's skills as an attorney, that he took this case, was duff armstrong acquitted. not everyone could afford the kind of lawyer that lincoln had become by that time. >> narrator: while lincoln was working on the armstrong trial, he decided to run as the republican candidate for senate from illinois. he faced his longtime rival stephen douglas.
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for years, he watched douglas' star rise from afar. he thought he would never go back to politics. but his jealousy was replaced with anger when douglas championed the kansas-nebraska act in 1854. it repealed the missouri compromise, which stopped the expansion of slavery to the west. the kansas-nebraska act allowed settlers in the western territories to decide whether they would allow slavery within their boundaries. >> when the kansas-nebraska act passed in 1854, it looked like slavery might have no end all the way to the pacific coast. >> he did get angry, and he did explain it to his friends, and he did--even riding the circuit, would keep brother attorneys up all night making the arguments of law against slavery. >> narrator: lincoln's anger
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was further enflamed by the dred scott decision of 1857. scott was a slave who claimed that he was a free man, since he lived in states where slavery was illegal. the united states supreme court ruled that scott was not a citizen and therefore could not sue for these rights. >> it's about that decision saying that slaveholders have the right to take their slaves wherever they want to take them, which means that they can take them in the free states if they want to; they can take them into the western territories. and what it suggests to lincoln and other antislavery people is that this institution is not going to be allowed to die a natural death. it's going to continue forever. and they're very much concerned about stopping that. >> he hoped, and others like him hoped, that slavery would die out gradually as western settlement continued. >> what lincoln will talk about is, to introduce slavery into
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the western territories is like putting a snake in bed with your children. you know, if the snake's already in bed with your children, you may not kill it because it would hurt the children perhaps. in other words, where slavery is already in the states, we may not be able to extricate it right now, but if it's a newly made bed like the newly made territories, no one is gonna put a snake into that bed. >> narrator: in june of 1858, lincoln confronted douglas on the circuit. the candidates agreed to a series of debates across the state. >> and in this debates, you have to remember that stephen douglas' platform was white supremacy. >> i think it was absolutely important to lincoln that he had douglas in the state as a foil, that it was important for lincoln to become a national figure, that he had a national figure already with whom he could do battle. >> narrator: lincoln lost the senate seat to douglas. accounts of the lincoln-douglas debates were published across the country. now that lincoln was known on
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the national political stage, his old friends from the circuit pushed him to run for a higher office. >> when he's beginning to think about running for president, these men have cemented a friendship that allows them to work together as a team and support lincoln when lincoln needs their help. >> narrator: in may of 1860, his circuit friends gathered in chicago at the national republican convention. >> those were the guys that went to chicago at the invitation of davis, organized by davis, and took the nomination away from the rest of the country. >> davis becomes his campaign manager in chicago and very shrewdly knows where to act on his own, where to go back to abraham lincoln, how to mobilize the support on behalf of lincoln, and surrounded himself with some of these circuit characters. and davis handled it brilliantly, everybody said. >> narrator: in an effort to secure votes for lincoln, davis offered a cabinet post. lincoln wrote, "i will not be
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bound by any bargains." davis responded to his team by saying, "lincoln ain't here, and we will go ahead as if we had never heard from him." lincoln won the nomination and again faced douglas. but this time, it was a race for the white house. in november of 1860, abraham lincoln was elected the 16th president of the united states. judge davis traveled to washington, d.c., to watch the inauguration. >> in a way, they were never the friends--there was never the warmth and personal relation that i think davis would have liked and that davis' friends
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assumed that must exist between them. >> lincoln also doubted that davis had the ability to serve on the u.s. supreme court, and so lincoln may have thought that this isn't the right job for david davis. but his friends, who were all lincoln's friends and lincoln's supporters, disagreed, and they eventually prevailed. >> narrator: in 1862, at the urging of his illinois friends, lincoln appointed judge david davis to the united states supreme court. >> abraham lincoln was very much the lawyer in the white house. this is what made up for his lack of administrative experience that many people have complained about. >> you can't know and understand abraham lincoln unless you understand his 23 years out there on the circuit among the people, learning a profession, becoming one of the great lawyers in the state, becoming one of the great politicians in the nation. it all grew from that experience
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that he had out on the circuit. >> people have asked me, "what if you could be with lincoln for an hour; what would you ask him?" and i know that i'm supposed to say as a serious historian, "i would ask him, 'what would you have done about reconstruction different from what andrew johnson did?'" but i know instead i would say, "come back with me to the circuit, stand up in that tavern, and just tell me stories, mr. lincoln," because then i would see him come to life. i'd see his vitality. i'd see his face break into a smile, slapping on his knee, laughing louder than everybody, and then he would come alive. >> announcer: to learn more about this program or lincoln's life as a traveling lawyer, visit: to purchase a dvd of lincoln: prelude to the presidency or a cd of selected music
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from the program, visit will online or call: captioning by captionmax
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lincoln: prelude to the presidency is made possible by a major grant from the illinois abraham lincoln bicentennial commission. additional funding provided by country financial: for more than 80 years,
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striving to help people achieve financial security. the university of illinois college of law, offering students from 42 states and 14 countries more than 12 joint degree programs. monticello, illinois, chamber of commerce and tourism office. monticello: where you can hike the allerton trails, ride the rails, or experience their shops and restaurants. the office of the chancellor at the university of illinois in urbana-champaign, whose mission is to creatively redefine excellence and innovation in teaching, research, and public engagement for the 21st century. funding also provided by the illinois state bar association. and with support from the abraham lincoln presidential library and museum in springfield, illinois. c 8lx
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Sino News Magazine
PBS February 13, 2011 8:30pm-9:00pm PST


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